ALBUQUERQUE – The head of the New Mexico Environment Department blasted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday during a legislative committee meeting, saying federal officials are downplaying the long-term effects of the Gold King Mine spill.
Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told members of the House agriculture committee that the agency has been pressuring communities to get behind a proposal that calls for monitoring water quality for only a year.
Flynn also argued that the proposal would look at whether the water is safe for recreation rather than digging deeper into recurring spikes in the readings of heavy metals that state officials fear could affect crops, livestock and wildlife in the years to come.
The EPA has maintained that water quality returned to normal in the weeks following the Aug. 5 spill. Flynn disputed that, and he pointed to readings taken after a series of storms last fall.
“When storm events occurred, the sediment was remobilized, and we’re seeing the levels of lead and other metals in the river increase well above safe drinking water standards,” Flynn testified. “So the idea that: ‘Hey, everything is back to normal, we’re good,’ is just flat out false and that’s a problem.”
Flynn said the agency needs to treat the incident as a human health issue.
The EPA did not respond directly to Flynn’s criticisms, but noted that it has been working with communities in the region on a draft monitoring plan. Flynn is part of that working group, according to the agency.
“The work group’s goal is to finalize a plan based on broad stakeholder input that has support among the jurisdiction,” EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham said in a statement.
State, local government and tribal representatives met last week in Colorado to discuss steps forward, but the timing on a final monitoring plan remains unclear.
New Mexico announced last month it intends to sue the EPA, the state of Colorado and the owners of two Colorado mines over the spill, which sent a mustard-tinted plume through the Animas Valley and into New Mexico and the San Juan River, forcing farmers and municipalities to shut off their taps. Farmers and ranchers on the Navajo Nation were left without a key water source for their crops and livestock for weeks.
The EPA said a contractor accidentally unleashed more than 3 million gallons of mine wastewater during a cleanup project.
Flynn told New Mexico lawmakers that the spill could have been avoided and accused the EPA of not holding itself to the same standards set for private industry.